The next stop in our Abandoned Spaces series is one steeped not only in history, but includes progressive influences, and political ownership. We introduce you to the “Ontario Reformatory”, or as most now know it, the “Guelph Correctional Centre”.
It all began with a progressive idea from Ontario’s Provincial Secretary, William Hanna. Hanna believed that society would benefit from certain prisoners being rehabilitated and released, rather than continue to tax the system by keeping them in jail, only then to be let out, and then likely re-offend. The idea was accepted by the government, and the project began in 1910, when a thousand acres of farmland in Guelph was purchased, and inmates from a Toronto jail were transferred in to begin working the land. “The location was specifically chosen because of the farmable scenic land, which contained all of the materials that would be needed to construct the prison; limestone for exterior walls, clay for bricks, and trees for the intricate wood trim and banisters. As well, it’s proximity to two rail lines would make it easy to transport prisoners and goods.”
The land itself, as well as the architectural design of the Reformatory, were purposefully chosen so that the inmates would be connected to nature and not necessarily feel like imprisonment, where they could conduct activities both indoors and outside of the building itself. Hanna so believed in his idea of “reform”, that originally the area had included no fencing to define the area, or protect it for that matter.
“The cell blocks were made up of three floors, each complete with thirteen cells and a dormitory. Well- behaved general population inmates were housed in the dormitories in groups of 20 to 22. Prisoners labelled “criminally insane” were housed in a specific block known as the Ontario Hospital. The guards utilized over a mile of a purpose-built tunnel system to allow direct access to various areas within the building. In 1921, a Superintendent’s residence was built on the grounds, and over time a church, a hospital, and a large mess hall were also constructed.”
Part of the reform project was to assign each prisoner a job upon admission. Prisoners were assessed, and jobs were arranged mostly around manual labor and construction, including working at a cannery, a farm, a woolen mill, and even a greenhouse. Some prisoners were taught skills like tailoring and machinery, as well as several different trades that they could take out into the real world with them, give them a purpose, a sense of pride, and of course keep them out of trouble!
The reform project was very successful, and grew beyond what most would have envisioned. The prisoners created quite an industry within their system, and began to produce clothing, furniture, and even windows, products that adorned many of the homes located in Guelph at the time. The Reformatory began to turn a profit, and the Ontario Government considered it to be a huge success.
When WWI was over, the returning wounded soldiers needed a place to convalesce, so the Reformatory became a hospital, housing hundreds of veterans. In 1921, the Reformatory re-opened and grew to be the largest prison in Canada. Sadly, things changed dramatically when in 1952 a major riot broke out, involving more than half the prison population. Society, both socially and legally, was changing as well. The buildings, built from limestone, were deteriorating, and the stone remained frigid in the winter months. And so, the building was bricked over, the quarry was closed, and the government felt that the need to teach farming skills was no longer required.
In 1972, the Ontario Reformatory officially became the Guelph Correctional Centre. The original vision of William Hanna was long forgotten, and the Reformatory became a fully-fledged prison, and its population quickly dwindled due to the building’s security and practicality concerns.
By 2002, the Guelph Correctional Centre had been reduced to only 450 prisoners, so the prison was shut down. Prisoners were transferred to Ontario’s newly constructed “super-jails”.
Most correctional centres like the one in Guelph have since decayed through time, and have eventually been destroyed. In Guelph however, the buildings have been very well preserved and some buildings are awaiting “heritage status”.
The property itself is now closed, and has 24-hour surveillance as well as full-time security guards patrolling the grounds.
The Guelph Correctional Centre is an amazing tribute to the rich history that Guelph, Ontario has on offer. It is also a symbol of a set of social ideals that were very progressive for its time, and represented a vision of humanity and hope, in a social construct where there was often so little.